Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology

"…you can dive in anywhere and go anywhere and the sphere of knowledge will be created by your own exploration of this material… In this way, the process of reading this book mirrors the book’s content regarding the mind itself."

- Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology, front matter

True confessions: I am writing a summary of a book that I didn’t finish. The thing is—I read the book just as it was intended to be read. Dr. Siegel—the founder of interpersonal neurobiology—wrote this book as a reference for anyone wanting to understand more about the key concepts that this field of study and practice offer. In a broader sense, this is a book for anyone looking to better understand their minds and brains.

The book is designed for you to choose topics that sound interesting—and explore them. The content is not linear and would feel repetitive if read in a linear manner. In addition, key concepts and terms are notated—providing a reference back to all the places in the book where a concept is discussed. So, one way to use the book is to explore all the references—another is to explore topics of interest to you. The format works especially well on a Kindle.

I spent a few hours using the book in this way—exploring concepts, ideas and practices that were of particular interest to me. I know that I’ll keep the book handy for future exploration or to revisit the concepts I explore—or for definitions of terms that I encounter elsewhere in my reading about the brain.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

The Triangle of Well-Being: Mind, Brain and Relationships

"… health emerges from a balanced and coordinated brain, empathic and connected relationships, and a coherent and resilient mind."
- Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology, page 27

Dr. Siegel has a fascinating and powerful definition of the mind as “an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information.” This definition is rich and thought-provoking—it’s also one of the few available definitions of mind and took him years to create—working collaboratively with people across a myriad of fields of study.

What you’ll notice is that in this definition, mind and brain are not synonymous—and yet the mind is one part of a whole—that includes the brain (which is distributed across our nervous system) and our relationships with ourselves and with others as well. These three elements form the “triangle of well-being.”

By integrating all these facets, we can create health—how to use knowledge of our minds and brains to create greater health through integration.

If you find all that a bit esoteric, don’t worry—the big idea here is that the mind is a process, it is fluid and changing and we have an array of tools available to us to make it healthier. And, as we create healthier minds, we can also create healthier brains and healthier relationships.

The other big message of the book is that knowledge empowers. Knowing more about our brains can help us enormously. Dr. Siegel is an advocate for educating people about how their brains work—in schools and in all settings where people live and work together.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Creating “Time-in”

"Imagine sharing your home, the body, with your best friend instead of a neutral observer or even a hostile opponent."
- Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology, page 44

Integration of mind, brain and body, lies at the core of well-being. And, it can be cultivated intentionally. Dr. Siegel calls this taking “time-in” to reflect—and can be achieved through mindfulness practices (several are available on Dr. Siegel’s website.) By engaging in mindfulness practices we cultivate healthy relationships with both ourselves and others—becoming, in fact, our own best friend. Only by developing a better, more compassionate relationship with ourselves can we ever really hope to create better, more compassionate relationships with others.

One fascinating finding that Dr. Siegel shares is that there is a profound overlap between the outcomes of mindfulness practice and secure parent-child attachment. Both the relationship between parent and child and the practice of mindfulness seem to help us create greater interpersonal attunement.

The significance of this finding is that we can repair and strengthen our ability to be attuned—which is a core component of mental health—even after childhood. We can become stronger, more resilient, more compassionate—despite any childhood challenges we faced. This is the deep power of mindfulness or “time-in” for our relationships—beginning with the relationship with our own self.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

The Power of Neuroplasticity

"Genes are like books in a library—they must be read in order to have an impact on the world."
- Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology, page 56

Neuroplasticity is one of the most important concepts discussed by Dr. Siegel—it gets its own chapter and many references. A simple definition is “the ability of the brain to change its structure in response to experience.” What we do, how we live, what we focus our attention on—moment by moment—is creating our brains.

This is hugely exciting—especially for anyone who thought that our brains were “set” in childhood—and also a bit daunting. We can shape who we are and what we become.

We now know, too, that experience changes the way our genes are expressed—a process called “epigenesis” that is getting a lot of scientific attention. It’s the ultimate play between nature and nurture. This, too, is both comforting and alarming. It suggests that stress, trauma and abuse can leave a powerful mark—it also holds out the hope that our brains have the capacity to heal from damage using the power of neuroplasticity.

Again, the takeaway here is that attention is power—and we can use attention to create healthier, stronger, happier minds, brains and relationships.

While not a “business book” in any traditional sense— the concepts that Dr. Siegel has developed are enormously practical and relevant to anyone—and can and should be applied in life and work. Our capacity for integration supports better lives, better relationships and better workplaces. Dr. Siegel offers up a strong argument for the integration of wellness practices that includes mindfulness in the workplace—as well as in schools and other institutions.

I’m glad to have this book on my shelf. It is a great teacher and refresher—and it also is a good reference on the brain itself—with his wonderful model of the “brain in the palm of your hand” getting a whole chapter and some drawings.

For a more conventional and perhaps easier to read introduction to Dr. Siegel’s work, I’d recommend Mindsight—covering some of the same material and sharing a variety of interesting case studies.

I urge you to explore the work of Dr. Siegel—and begin to consider what you can do to increase your own well-being—what practices might be useful for you? What insights can you take away and apply? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Ronni Hendel-Giller

ABOUT Ronni Hendel-Giller

Ronni Hendel-Giller has been passionate about leadership since she was a teenager. She's worked in non-profit and for-profit leadership positions—always with an eye to guiding others to realize their leadership potential...
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